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How the C of E faced a world war

07 November 2014

by Alan Wilkinson


British soldiers near the river Somme, winter 1916

British soldiers near the river Somme, winter 1916

THE Church of England inherited traditional attitudes to war which had been revived during the Boer War (1899-1902); so it was widely proclaimed that war arouses patriotism, awakens the nation from selfishness, reminds people of the precarious nature of life, and makes people want to pray. Of the main Christian groups, only the Quakers maintained a corporate pacifism, although in fact 33 per cent of Quakers of military age enlisted.

Many neutralists (who included the Bishops of Lincoln and Hereford) changed their minds when Germany invaded Belgium. Preachers compared that to Ahab's seizing of Naboth's vineyard (1 Kings 21).

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York (Randall Davidson and Cosmo Lang), Bishop Charles Gore of Oxford, the theologian Henry Scott Holland, and George Bell (Davidson's chaplain, and later the prophetic Bishop of Chichester) were among those Anglicans who refused to be swept along by intense nationalism.

The normally cautious Davidson was prepared to be unpopular by publicly rejecting reprisals, the use of poison gas, and hatred of Germans. On the eve of the Armistice, he reminded the nation that, when they prayed the Our Father, barriers crumbled: others prayed "Pater Noster", "Notre Père," "Yes, and 'Unser Vater.'"

Davidson, in the Lords, defended the rights of conscientious objectors, and corresponded tirelessly about individual cases of hardship. Several leading Anglican figures supported this stance.

Others echoed the bellicosity of Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London, who said, in Westminster Abbey, that the nation was "banded together in a great crusade . . . to kill Germans".`

Clergy actively helped the war effort by working part-time as special constables, car mechanics, and even in armaments firms. They also ministered to the many bereaved at home. But they were strongly discouraged from becoming combatants.

More than 1000 clerics became chaplains in the armed forces, and 111 of them were killed, or died as a result of the war. Whereas chaplains of other churches ministered to their own adherents, Anglican chaplains were expected to minister to everyone. Some 70 per cent of soldiers registered themselves as "C of E".

In crises, sacramental and ritual religion is more effective than the plain word alone. But most who were "C of E" had been brought up in Sunday school, not church, and so were not communicants. In any case, it was widely believed that "communion is for the gentry," which, in the army, meant officers, not men.

In 1914, prayers for the dead were uncommon, and particularly repugnant to Evangelicals. By the end of the war, they were widely used. On All Souls' Day (which began to be observed more widely) in November 1914, Davidson spoke tenderly of praying for the dead as "natural and helpful".

The war challenged faith, and powerfully accelerated pluralism, secularity, and a belief in modernity. Yet the faith of some survivors was strengthened so much that they offered themselves for ordination.

Many people were fortified through believing that the deaths of soldiers were united with the sacrifice of Christ. The popular picture The Great Sacrifice depicted a dead soldier with his hand on the feet of the crucified Jesus.

The pressure to give women a new part to play in Church and State was increased by their contribution to the war effort. The Church, like the nation, believed that this war was a war to end war, and supported the League of Nations and peace-making between Churches through ecumenism.

Remembrance rituals combined the traditional and modern. The two minutes' silence was communal, but could be used by individuals differently. The addition of the reveille to the "Last Post" could signify resurrection.

Sir Edward de Stein, a soldier-poet, framed the paradoxical question that survivors asked after the Armistice: "How shall I say goodbye to you, wonderful, terrible days . . . ?



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